by Sharon Hudgins
"What are 'Red Grits with Vanilla Sauce'?" asked my American companions at a big hotel banquet in Berlin. "Sounds like something from our own Deep South," one of them chimed in.
They had all been reading the English translation of the German menu for a massive banquet buffet set up to serve a thousand people that day.
I explained that "Red Grits" is the literal translation of Rote Grütze, the German term for a sweet-tart red berry pudding that some people consider to be "the national dessert of Germany." And just a few spoonfuls of the ruby-red pudding were enough to convince my American friends to head back to the buffet tables for second helpings.
In almost every region of Germany I've found Rote Grütze listed on menus, from small family-owned eateries to beer halls to fancy hotel restaurants. But this popular pudding actually originated in the northern part of the country, in the region of Schleswig-Holstein, where it's known as Rodgrütt. That term is very similar to the Danish rødgrød—and indeed this same dessert can also be found in most of the countries bordering the North and Baltic Seas.
Summer is the best season for eating Rote Grütze, which is sometimes made from a single type of fresh berry, such as raspberries, but more commonly consists of a combination of raspberries, strawberries, red currants, even pitted cherries (a fruit). Occasionally blueberries, blackberries, and black currants are added, too, which gives the pudding a deeper, darker color. Now that frozen berries are readily available, you'll find Rote Grütze on some German menus year round. But summer is still the best time to sample this dish, when the berries are at the peak of their flavor.
So what do grits have to do with this classic German dessert? The term "Grütze" means "grits" or "groats," which are coarsely ground grains. In the past, a simple, very thick, peasant porridge dish was made by cooking cereal groats (wheat, barley, oats, buckwheat) in berry juice or fruit juice. Often this frugal dish constituted the main part of an evening meal in poor households. But over time, the emphasis shifted from the heavy, filling grains to the berry or fruit juice itself—just lightly thickened with cornstarch, arrowroot, sago, or tapioca—as the popularity of this tasty, easy-to-make dish spread throughout the country, from farm to city.
According to the late German food expert Horst Scharfenberg, in the 1970s this old-fashioned farmhouse pudding was "unexpectedly acclaimed as a treasure of home-grown haute cuisine and started turning up on 'gastronomic menus' all over Germany." Today, some chefs even tart up their Rote Grütze with red wine, brandy, or rum—hardly old German farmhouse fare. Traditionally this dessert was topped with milk, heavy cream, or vanilla sauce, and now it's also often garnished with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream—all of which provide a pleasant contrast to the color, taste, and texture of the red pudding underneath.
On a recent trip to Germany, I noted that Rote Grütze was on the menu of every place I ate. It even turned up on the breakfast buffets of some North German hotels. At a hotel in Berlin, it was presented in a big serving bowl with a pitcher of cream on the side. On a Berlin sightseeing boat, the lunch buffet featured Rote Grütze in small individual dessert bowls with vanilla sauce on top. At several tony North German restaurants, rustic Rote Grütze was served in miniature glass canning jars, like little Mason jars—obviously the latest fad in food presentation. Other chefs dished up their red-berry puddings more elegantly, in stemmed wine glasses with swirls of whipped cream on top. And one put a thick portion of this dessert on a large dinner plate, topped it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and added a couple of rolled-up crêpes on the side, all garnished with a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts.
As with any unrecorded recipe that surely originated in many locations and several centuries ago, there are as many ways of making this dish as there are cooks who prepare it. Some people prefer a perfectly smooth pudding, made from thickened berry juice or berry purée. Others—including me—like a slightly chunkier version where a few of the berries or cherries are coarsely chopped or left whole. But whatever your own personal preference, always avoid Rote Grütze made from a packaged mix, which is nothing more than an insipid imitation of this fine German dessert.
(German Red Fruit Pudding)
6 cups fresh or frozen unsweetened berries (raspberries, strawberries, red currants, or any
combination of these, with some pitted red cherries if desired)
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup cold water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Garnish: Light or heavy cream, whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, or vanilla sauce
* Thaw frozen berries before using them. Some recipes include a few blueberries, blackberries, black currants, or dark cherries, too, but the primary color should be red.
Stem and wash the berries; shake them dry in a colander. For a smooth Rote Grütze, process the berries in a blender, 2 cups at a time, until they are completely pureed. For a chunkier version, puree 4 cups of berries in a blender and coarsely chop the remaining 2 cups. Or process all 6 cups in a food processor, using the chopping blade and pulse button, until the mixture reaches the consistency you want. If you want a Rote Grütze without seeds, press the pureed berries through a fine strainer or sieve.
Combine the processed berries and sugar in a medium-size non-aluminum saucepan. Dissolve the cornstarch in cold water in a small bowl.
Bring the berry mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Stir the cornstarch in the bowl again to make sure it is dissolved, then slowly stir it into the berry mixture. Reduce the heat and let the Rote Grütze simmer for 3 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent scorching—just until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and vanilla extract.
Pour the Rote Grütze into a large serving bowl or individual dessert bowls or stemmed wine glasses. Cover and chill in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Serve cold, with the garnish of your choice.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
VANILLA CUSTARD SAUCE
2-1/2 cups milk
3 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Bring the milk to a simmer in a small saucepan, then let it cool to lukewarm. Whisk the egg yolks, sugar, and salt together in the top of a double boiler until they are well combined. Whisk the lukewarm milk into the egg mixture very slowly. Cook the mixture in the top of the double boiler set over, not in, simmering water, stirring frequently, until the sauce thickens. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. Serve chilled or at room temperature as a garnish for Rote Grütze.
Makes approximately 2-1/2 cups of Vanilla Sauce.
Sharon Hudgins is the Food Editor of European Traveler (www.europeantraveler.net) and the Food Columnist for German Life magazine (www.germanlife.com).