When I think about my all-time favourite dishes, German potato pancakes with apple sauce always comes to mind. I would even go as far as to say that if I had to choose one dish for the rest of my life it probably would be kröbbelches with apple sauce. Why? Well, because it's simply delicious, but it's also close to my heart.
As I peel and grate potatoes in my new home in Australia, the memories of potato pancakes during my childhood even make me tear up a little. They evoke a warm feeling, whether they're of cooking with my oma and opa, or of going to my absolute favourite event: the biannual Kottenheimer Kröbbelchesfest or Potato Pancake Festival in my grandparents' hometown of Kottenheim.
Kröbbelches are the signature dish of the village Kottenheim by the Rhine River in Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany's west.
The first Kottenheimer Kröbbelchesfest was held in 1952. It was intended as a one-off event to finance a new bell for the village's chapel, but the townsfolk loved it so much that it stuck. Now, it even has its own mascot: a smiling potato named Kröbbelino. There's even a poem and a song dedicated to the festival and Kröbbelino.
However, arguably what's most impressive is that the festival uses approximately 10,000 - 14,000 kilograms of potatoes, which the women of the village peel by hand.
It's unclear why potato pancakes were chosen as the festival's theme, but some say Kottenheim's village committee was inspired by a rival village that joked that Kottenheim's attempt to bait foxes with potato pancakes only baited their own people.
Kottenheim's attempt to bait foxes with potato pancakes only baited their own people.
During the festival, I would eat as many potato pancakes with apple sauce as possible, or rather, as many as I was allowed to have. I can still smell the potatoes being fried in hot oil and cooked apple all these years later. But this warm feeling is suddenly interrupted by another memory: being made to wear a potato sack (I'm talking the very itchy hessian sack ones) as part of the Kottenheimer Kröbbelchesfest street parade. Thinking this could be a false memory, I text my mama in Germany with a photo of some potato pancakes sizzling in the frying pan in my Australian kitchen. I ask her, "When I was little, did you put me in a potato sack, put brown face colour on my face and make me walk through my grandparents' town like that?"
To my surprise, it only took a couple of minutes for my mama to answer. "They look delicious, just like the original ones you loved as a child," she says, referring to my photo.
Did she completely ignored my question then? I have three words for you: Yes. She. Did.
While I wait for her to text again with the answer to my question, I cook about another 12 potato pancakes and eat almost all of them with apple sauce and go to bed. Still no answer from my mama.
So the next morning, I began digging. However, considering that Kottenheim only has a population of 2,000 odd souls in a very remote area, it wasn't hard for a Google search to return the result I was looking for. I found a digital copy of the Kottenheimer Kröbbelchesfest's 60th-anniversary brochure with photographic evidence of children parading the streets in hessian potato sacks.
I message my mama again. This time with the evidence and my question written in capital letters.
"Yes, your memory is correct," she finally answers.
German potato pancakes with apple sauce
• 10 apples (sweet-sour variety)
• 300 ml water
• ½ lemon, juice only
• 2 tbsp brown sugar
• 1 pinch ground cinnamon
• 1.5 kg potatoes (high starch variety)
• 1 yellow onion
• 2 eggs
• 1 ½ cup all-purpose flour
• ¼ tsp salt
• ¼ tsp pepper
• 1 pinch Nutmeg
• Neutral tasting oil for frying, e.g. rice bran or canola oil
- Rinse, peel, core and chop apples.
- Place apples, water, lemon juice and sugar in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to low heat. Cover and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes or until soft.
- Season with a pinch of cinnamon.
- Puree apples in a blender for very smooth apple sauce. For a coarse apple sauce, you can use a potato masher instead.
- Peel and rinse potatoes and the onion and grate them finely.
- Wrap the grated potatoes and onion in a clean tea towel and squeeze to release as much liquid as possible. Collect the liquid in a bowl and set it aside.
- Combine potatoes, onion, eggs and flour and stir until a dough-like mixture forms.
- Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
- Heat the oil (about 1 cm high) in a large frying pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add one scoop of potato pancake dough in the middle of the pan and flatten with the back of a spoon or spatula.
- Cook each side for three to five minutes each side or until golden brown and crisp.
- Place potato pancakes on a kitchen towel to soak up excess oil.
- Serve the potato pancakes still hot and with apple sauce (a lot of apple sauce.)
Note: Let the potato water sit for about 10 to 15 minutes until potato starch has set. Strain off the water and add the remaining starch to the potato pancake dough. This makes them extra crisp.
According to local legend, these delicate yeast dumplings poached in milk and sugar, once spared a small German town from being plundered by a Swedish army. The invaders said they would leave in peace if they were fed sufficiently. So the town baker set to work with the few ingredients on hand (milk, flour, eggs), and created the dampfnudel, sating their hunger and saving his town.