Almond Crescents and Splendid Fin de Siecle Vienna of Katharina Schratt

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The weeks leading up to the winter holidays are intensely aromatic for me, as I start experimenting with new recipes for pastries and cakes. I hardly even need to wear perfume because as it is, everything gets permeated with the scents of vanilla, lemon peel, ginger and rosewater. Winter holiday baking is a relatively new tradition for me, but I plunged into it with zeal. I strongly associate winter holidays with Vienna, where I spent some of my student days: Christmas decorations glittering in the snow covered streets, the seductive bitterness of hot chocolate, Strauss concerts at the elegant Kursalon Wien, the light-hearted exuberance of being exam free!

As much as I love the modern city, I also have a passionate interest in the Vienna of the fin de siècle when the Hapsburg Empire lost much of its grandeur. No longer the capital city of a powerful empire, Vienna became an imperial residence. It is fascinating to consider that this period of political and social crisis in Vienna produced some of the most extraordinary movements in art, music and psychoanalysis and attracted a fascinating mix of artists.

One such brilliant personality was Katharina Schratt, a famous actress and a close friend of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. They were first introduced by Empress Elisabeth, and while the degree of their closeness is subject to much speculation, the warm friendship between Schratt and the Emperor lasted until his death in 1916. Franz Joseph loved taking breakfast at Schratt’s house and he often commented on her delicious cooking, complaining about the heavy and overly decorated dishes served by the Imperial kitchen.  He also regreted that he never got to enjoy a proper hot meal due to the distance his dinner had to travel at the Palace. His favorite dishes were goulash, a hearty meat stew, and kugelhopf, a sweet brioche-like bread, which Schratt was glad to provide.

In the 1970s, at the estate sale of Anton Schratt, Katharina’s son, a Hungarian-American chef, Louis Szathmary, discovered a handwritten compilation of recipes simply titled “Kochbuch, 1905, aus dem Besitz Kat. Schratt” (property of Kath. Schratt.)  The book contains an unusual mix of refined French haute cuisine and lusty Hungarian specialties. Goulash is well represented, and there is even a separate page with three recipes for kugelhopf. The book was published in English as To Set Before the King: Katharina Schratt’s Festive Recipes, and if you have an interest in history and traditional cooking, it is a fascinating read.

The almond crescent recipe below comes from Schratt’s compilation of recipes.  Of course, adapting any recipe to modern ingredients is a challenge, but it is something that I enjoy doing. I imagine it allows me to get a flavor of the period, and for a romantic like me, this is a delicious fantasy. So, I make a cup of hot chocolate, top it with a lavish dose of whipped cream, listen to some Strauss waltzes, and although Vienna is far away, I can almost see its glittering splendor.

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Almond Crescents

These almond crescents are delectable! They are essentially an almond meringue, reminiscent of confections like nougat or Italian torrone, but far easier to prepare. I will include the original recipe and my adaptation. While I stay fairly close to the original flavor, this recipe can be changed freely. Use hazelnuts, pecans or pistachios instead of almonds; add vanilla, lemon zest, cacao, cardamom, rosewater or the spices of your choice. The meringue is a perfect canvas to use for your own creations.

Original Recipe: “Beat 4 egg whites until stiff, blend in 234g sugar, 234g blanched almonds coarsely chopped. Spread on a board, form crescents, and roll them in chopped almonds. Bake on a well-buttered cookie sheet in a cool oven.”

My Adaptation: 160g ground, lightly toasted almonds
80g fine granulated sugar
20g egg white (approximately 1 large egg white)

Preheat oven to 350F.

Whip egg whites till soft peaks, add sugar and continue whipping till a firm, silky and shiny mass is obtained. Add 1/3 of the egg white mixture to the ground almonds. Mix well and add the rest in increments, making sure that you obtain a soft, but moldable dough. Keep a bowl of water nearby and divide the dough into walnut size lumps. Shape each into a crescent and place onto parchment paper covered baking sheet. Sprinkle with sliced almonds or pine nuts.

Depending on your oven, the crescents will need 10-20 minutes. They should be light, barely colored. It is best to bake them on a double baking sheet to prevent the bottom from coloring too much. It only takes a minute to burn meringue, so pay close attention to the cookies.

Enjoy!

Photography © Bois de Jasmin

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27 Comments

  • Andy: How delicious! At first I thought these were the type of almond crescents I make, which are formed out of a butter-rich dough laced with a strong dose of almond extract, but I’m glad to see a different recipe to try. I have had great success with the recipes you share, and I particularly love your recipe for medivnychky. I too wish I could be in Vienna this holiday! December 21, 2011 at 6:37am Reply

  • Olfactoria: Warm greetings from Vienna!
    Your lovely post makes me more appreciative of the city I live in, even though my reality can’t compare to your memories. It’s a grey and rainy winter’s day, but you just put a smile on my face. Thank you! December 21, 2011 at 8:34am Reply

  • Suzanna: What a lovely post! And the picture–nearly edible.

    I love holiday culinary traditions, from the airy and elegant (as is yours above) to the thick and heavier (a julekage that I used to make each year). Here in Florida I have tended to make use of abundant sour oranges on the land; they can be used to flavor a pound cake or to make into a creamy pie, even if neither is particuarly Christmas-like.

    Glittering Vienna! I’m looking out my door at a swamp, but you’ve filled my imagination with crunchy snow and silver sparkles and distant fading empires. December 21, 2011 at 8:42am Reply

  • Victoria: This book has this recipe as well, and it is probably one of my favorite cookies after gingerbread. These are different, but if you like nuts, I am sure that you will enjoy them.

    By the way, I am baking stollen today, so wish me luck! December 21, 2011 at 10:14am Reply

  • Victoria: Happy holidays to you! Of course, we remember the best things, but I do love Vienna in all of its guises. We wanted to return this Christmas, but with all of my travels this year, I decided that we need to spend some time with family. So, we are visiting my parents. December 21, 2011 at 10:16am Reply

  • Caro: Thank you, dear Victoria! Vienna is probably my favorite city in the world. Stunningly beautiful as it is today, i can only imagine what it would have been like in its days of imperial splendor.
    I would love to spend one Christmas there. December 21, 2011 at 10:17am Reply

  • Victoria: I really would like to make julekage as well. I also envy your supply of sour oranges! I add orange zest to everything–marinade for fish, meat, chicken; to cakes and cookies, even to my morning yogurt. The scent is so rejuvenating and uplifting.

    I looked out at the parking lot as I wrote my post, and I now I am sitting in the typical office. Still, one can dream… December 21, 2011 at 10:20am Reply

  • Victoria: Caro, all of these old imperial residences–Vienna, St. Petersburg, Istanbul, etc–have such an interesting ambiance. I hope that next year we will make our trip after all. December 21, 2011 at 10:23am Reply

  • Fabrice Sueiro: Hello Victoria,
    greetings from Paris, where apparently the weather is about the same as in Vienna: humid, cold and dull.
    Thanks a lot for your recipe, I’ll try it next week-end!
    Have you tried the bitter orange candied peels coated with dark chocolate ? Orange/chocolate pairing instantly reminds me of Christmas…
    Happy holidays to you. December 21, 2011 at 10:39am Reply

  • Victoria: Fabrice, that’s my favorite sweetmeat ever–candied bitter orange peels dipped in chocolate. I make some ever year, and I agree the flavor combination is very holiday like to me. I even made a little accord for a candle. December 21, 2011 at 12:20pm Reply

  • DRTVrMoi: Last year, I spent the holidays in Vienna & Berlin and I was just missing all their Christmas cheer. Your recipe is a gift from Wien! Thank you so much for sharing this and all your perfume insights throughout the year. December 21, 2011 at 12:41pm Reply

  • Yulya: Victoria, as always, it is a pleasure to read! I am looking into getting the book, it should be a fascinating read. Your adaptation of the recipe is terrific. Thank you December 21, 2011 at 1:36pm Reply

  • Andy: Oh yes! I hope it turns out well! Let me know how it went and how you liked it! December 21, 2011 at 2:56pm Reply

  • Victoria: I will! It is rising right now. December 21, 2011 at 3:15pm Reply

  • Victoria: I am so glad that my post could bring back those nice memories. When I first came across this book, I wanted to try something out of it. So, it is a cookie with a history! December 21, 2011 at 3:16pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you, Yulya! The book “To Set Before The King” contains not only Katharina’s recipes, but also a story of her life. Fascinating, to say the least! December 21, 2011 at 3:17pm Reply

  • Rose D: Being a history fan I was delighted to find here the reference on Katharina and Franz Josef. During my teenage years, I was an avid reader of anything concerning the Austrian imperial family (empress Elisabeth in particular), Strauss music, and young artists forming the way to Art nouveau.

    As far as cooking, I must confess I prefer to eat my mother´s pastries, rather than to cook something myself. But it is never too late to try something new and perhaps this story was just what I needed to make the most out of this unusually gray day. December 21, 2011 at 3:24pm Reply

  • Victoria: How wonderful to meet another Austrian history fan! I have a weakness for recipes with a story, they seem more meaningful to me somehow. I love digging through antique or just old cookbooks for some ideas.

    Do you have favorite history works focusing on this period? December 21, 2011 at 3:35pm Reply

  • Nikki: Lovely post! I am ordering the book right now; it sounds fascinating. Dankeschoen!
    Frohe Weihnachten und ein glueckliches neues Jahr!
    Viennese Waltz is just beautiful, so uplifting. December 21, 2011 at 4:40pm Reply

  • sweetlife: If I were not away from home right now I would be rushing into my kitchen to make these, and I’m not usually much of a baker. I love both almonds and meringues and I’m betting these have a wonderful texture. Love that story too, and the whole idea of a noblewoman capturing the king with her cooking. (But surely it was her cook doing the actual work? Was she actually in the kitchen herself? How daring!)

    Happy Holidays to you, V! December 21, 2011 at 10:00pm Reply

  • sweetlife: Oh, wait–“an actress”! So not a noblewoman at all. Well that explains it them. xo December 21, 2011 at 10:01pm Reply

  • Victoria: It was her cook! Although she must have known enough about cooking to direct her cook to prepare the dishes that Franz Joseph loved. In those days, ladies rarely touched the knife themselves, but a mark of a good hostess was knowing how to do things, even if one did not cook by oneself. One only needs to consider an impressive range of books on cooking and gastronomy that were aimed at the higher social strata.

    Happy holidays to you too, A! Wishing lots of success and many new discoveries in 2012 and beyond. December 21, 2011 at 10:16pm Reply

  • Victoria: Here is an interesting article from NYTimes published in 1918
    http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F20C15F8385B11738DDDAB0994D9405B888DF1D3

    “Katharina Schratt was described as an extremely handsome woman of the brunette type…” December 21, 2011 at 10:22pm Reply

  • Victoria: Happy holidays to you too!
    I think that you will enjoy the book. The intro is very interesting, and the recipes are wonderful. I’ve tried a few already. December 21, 2011 at 10:23pm Reply

  • hongkongmom: sounds delish victoria, i need to make these…however, if i minus one tblsp of egg white from one egg….it will leave me with nothing:-(? December 22, 2011 at 4:07am Reply

  • Victoria: Just use a whole egg white. I realized that it is difficult to spoon exactly 1T out. You know, it does not really matter, if you whip more whites than your nuts can absorb. Since you add whites in increments, you can control the texture of your dough. It also depends on how moist your nuts are. I made this recipe with almonds, and this quantity was perfect. For a cashew version, I needed slightly less egg white. December 22, 2011 at 8:39am Reply

  • hongkongmom: thank u and happy happy holidays 🙂 December 23, 2011 at 12:53am Reply

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