The next big holiday after Christmas in Germany is Fasching, or Karneval, known in English as mardi gras (oops, that’s French) or carnival. In the U.S. this is confined to New Orleans, but in Germany, this holiday is celebrated throughout the country. An integral part of this tradition, which leads up to Lent and the associated period of fasting, is Krapfen, a popular pastry. They usually appear en masse in bakeries and grocery stores beginning in January.
But standing at the counter in my local bakery in December, inspecting the day’s assortment of cake, I spotted an unusual sight: Krapfen! Here were the filled pastries that signal the beginning of carnival – in December. Something was amiss. These aren’t supposed to be sold until after Christmas. Not until the cold month of January do festivities get rolling.
Commercial inflation, I figured, just as when stores in the U.S. broke a long-standing taboo by kicking off the sale of Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving.
This issue begged to be addressed. I puffed up my chest.
“What’s the deal with the Krapfen?” I asked the lady behind the counter.
(I’ll leave it to you to figure out exactly how I said this in German. It was not as glib as the English, but the thought was every bit as eloquent. Which is to say, not very.)
“Yes, it’s early in the season for Krapfen,” she said, “But just wait ‘til after Christmas – we’ll have many more varieties then.”
When I first arrived in Germany, I thought this pastry was just another in a long line of delectable German sweets, which simply proves that I’m a foreigner, as my daughter curtly informed me. Every German has fond memories of this seasonal pastry, which goes hand in hand with carnival. It also goes by a different name depending on where you are in the country.
My daughter, upon arriving in Berlin, was sternly warned not to call a Krapfen a Berliner, which also means someone or something from Berlin. This is only what people not from Berlin think these pastries are called. Real Berlin residents call them “Pfannkuchen,” short for “Berliner Pfannkuchen,” or Berlin pancakes. Sometimes it is called a Kräppel, with an umlaut thrown in just to embarrass foreigners who can’t pronounce them. Fastnachtsküchle or Puffel are other names.
Some conniving baker must have designed this nomenclature to unmask out-of-towners. It’s like taking a pop quiz when you enter the bakery:
“So, buddy? What’s it called, eh? Krapfen, Pfannkuchen, or Kräppel?”
“Uh, well, I’m not sure…maybe just this one here? I guess it’s called, uh, a Berliner?”
BEEP! A stranger! Busted!
The Krapfen could possibly be the only pastry that ever got involved in politics.
At the height of the Cold War, President Kennedy visited then-divided Berlin, a scant two years after East Germany built the Berlin Wall. Soviet Russia was trying to starve out West Berlin by cutting off all supply routes by land, easily possible since West Berlin was entirely surrounded by East German territory. This inspired the U.S. to supply West Berlin by air with the legendary Berlin Airlift.
On the occasion of this visit, Kennedy gave one of his most famous speeches to express solidarity with the West Germans, his “Ich bin ein Berliner” address. Strictly speaking, this could be translated as “I am a jelly doughnut.” The correct German would have been“Ich bin Berliner,” leaving out the article “ein.” Of course, all those listening knew that he did not speak fluent German and understood what he meant. The gesture was greatly appreciated.
Bakers must be a bored lot, for every year they add a couple of new kinds of Krapfen to the already huge assortment. Because in the form of a compact, round Krapfen, it’s an irresistible, neat little pastry package. You don’t need a fork to cut it and can just throw it in a bag to eat with your hands later. Fast-food cake.
My favorite Munich bakery, Rischart, has 12 different kinds of Krapfen on its website. They start with the classics: apricot jam filling, dusted with powdered sugar; and chocolate or vanilla-cream-filled versions.
Then they do knock-offs of existing cakes and other pastries. Germknödel Krapfen, after the Viennese sweet yeast dumpling filled with plum jam. Then comes Bienenstich, another copycat Krapfen based on the cake by the same name, which means bee sting, by the way, perhaps because of the gooey, honey-like layer on top.
For the adults, there’s Eierlikörkrapfen, filled with egg liqueur cream, probably to make the kids’ carnival parties more tolerable.
Then there’s one called “tiramisu with pistachio nuts.” Really? The baker must have eaten a few too many of the egg liqueur Krapfen when he came up with that one.
But the crowning glory of creativity is the Himburger-Krapfen. It must have been very late at night when the baker was bone tired and was suddenly inspired since the name of this Krapfen is a pun. Himbeer means raspberry and Hamburger means, well, hamburger. Himburger is not a real word but is instantly understood to be a sort of raspberry hamburger, which is exactly what it is.
As long as creativity is being asked for, I’d like to make a few suggestions myself. After all, I’m from America, the land of marketing, and that’s what we do best.
How about stollen Krapfen? Or brownie or apple-flavored Krapfen?
And why stop at egg liqueur Krapfen? We could have rum and vodka Krapfen. And come on Bavaria, home of the Oktoberfest, how about beer Krapfen?
I think Willi Wonka was also onto something with his three-course meal gum. Why not make a multiflavored Krapfen: a combination of roast beef, mashed potatoes, and chocolate pudding. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it?
It was recently discovered that half of Bavarians are overweight. With this cornucopia of Krapfen – on top of all the other cakes – it’s a wonder that we’re not all fat. Good thing we can burn off some of the calories by standing in the freezing cold for hours during Fasching.
Title photo: My latest discovery: a limoncello Krapfen