Wednesday, July 7, 2010

My Zwieback Story

Every April I look forward to attending the West Coast Mennonite Sale and Auction at Fresno Pacific University, or as I've always called it -- the MCC Sale. The two-day event includes an auction with homemade goodies and beautiful, intricate quilts sold by an old timey auctioneer, a world handcrafts fair trade store and tons of food. There's a pancake breakfast, Mexican food, snow cones, pizza, giant baked potatoes, ice cream and traditional German/Russian Mennonite food including a verenika dinner, portzelky New Year fritters, borscht soup and zwieback. Proceeds benefit the Mennonite Central Committee.

When I was younger I attended the MCC Sale with my parents, and then later volunteered at my youth group's car wash while my mom and dad helped out at the pancake breakfast. Although I no longer attend church I still love going to the MCC Sale because the event helps out a lot of people around the world, it's a neat tradition that connects me to my roots and it's just a lot of fun.

The first year I brought John along with me I explained that we had to take home some zwieback no ifs, and or buts. It was a gray Saturday and as we stood in line rain drops began to fall on our shoulders as we waited and waited behind a large group of hungry Menos. I tried to explain how special zwieback were but John wasn't convinced as we continued to wait in the drizzle for almost an hour. That was, until after we were handed our paper bag of a dozen warm zwiebacks, freshly made while we waited. Our hour in the rain was totally worth the chance to have homemade bread that melts in your mouth. Add a bit of butter and jam and you are set!

When most people hear the word "zwieback" they might think of a crispy bread given to toddlers for teething, but to me, I think of the Russian Mennonite zwieback.

Wikipedia describes Russian Mennonite zwieback as "a yeast bread roll formed from two pieces of dough that are pulled apart when eaten. Placing the two balls of dough one on top of the other so that the top one does not fall off during the baking process is part of the art and challenge that must be mastered by the baker. Traditionally this type of zwieback in baked Saturday and eaten Sunday morning and for afternoon Faspa."

(According to, Faspa "is a low-German, Mennonite term used for a typical late afternoon lunch that for generations has been served in Mennonite homes. The lunch consists of fresh, homemade buns, butter, jam, coffee and cheese. Faspa can also include fruit preserves, sausage or other sliced meat, and dessert.")

My mom tells me that her mother made zwieback every single Saturday morning and that her family would often enjoy it for Faspa. Because my maternal grandmother passed away when I was five, and my mom never really learned how to make zwieback, my only real experience with the yummy, rich bread has been just once a year at the MCC Sale.

This April John and I got to the MCC Sale super late and by the time we got in line for the zwieback, the volunteers at the zwieback stand only had enough dough and time to allow each person to purchase a dozen rolls. Problem was, I also wanted to bring my mom some zwieback. (Don't worry, I didn't keep all of the zwieback for myself. I still shared with my mama!) With only a few precious zwieback per person this year, I knew I couldn't wait a whole other year to get my hands on the buttery treats.

One ambitious weekend later that month I decided to try out a recipe for zwieback I found through the cooking blog, Mennonite Girls Can Cook. I was hesitant to try the recipe because I had never made homemade bread before, had never really worked with yeast before, and didn't know if I was up for the challenge of making sure the buns wouldn't topple while baking.

My first test was getting the perfect temperature of lukewarm water to mix with the yeast and sugar. I wanted to ask for John's opinion on the water, but he was in the other room and I decided to just go for it. The yeast mixture seemed to be doing what it was supposed to be doing, looking all puffed up and such. Huzzah! I was so happy!

I still wasn't sure the dough would rise, but after putting it into a large mixing bowl, covering it and leaving it to sit while I left the house for an afternoon walk -- this is what I came back to:

Yay! John said this picture looks gross, but oh well. I'm posting it anyway. This cooking feat must be documented!  I did it!

I formed the buns, let them rise again, baked them -- and they turned out just perfect! Non-toppling, golden brown and buttery! I'd call the whole experience a wild success!

(For the record -- No, I did not look like this while baking. I was wearing PJ shorts and an old T-shirt, complete with greasy second- or third-day hair in a ponytail with no makeup. And I forgot to put on my apron until after I had finished baking. Ooops! And behind me, to the right, my kitchen is a complete and utter mess. Which I then proceeded to not clean up for a few days. I mean, if you wanna be on the real, real, real!)

I really enjoyed taking on this challenge and I can't wait to make zwieback again! As cheesy as it may sound, while making this recipe I imagined my grandma (or as I called her, Nana) making this very same recipe for her family and the thought made me smile. I wish Nana was still around to teach me her family recipes, but making a few of them myself will have to be the next best thing. I love that this is a cultural food that has been passed on from generations and generations of families from Germany and Russia to America. Next time I hope to make zwieback with my mom and sister.

Click here for the Mennonite Girls Can Cook blog.
Click here for the zwieback recipe I used. (Although I did not use instant potato flakes.)

Do you have a special food from your culture that you love to make?


Amber (Girl with the red hair) said...

YUM!! I have never heard of this kind of bread but it looks good.

I don't really have a "culture" per say, BUT Eric's family is half Native American (Canadian I guess, haha) and they make BANNOCK (the bread you made reminds me of it) and O M G, bannock is SO GOOD. I love it!! I'm yet to try making it myself though :)

Johnny said...

OH MY GOD that bread was good. You nailed it on your first try! Great job sweets! ... can you make that again soon?

alyssa said...

I want to try that bread!! Can you come make it for me? :) That was a cute story! What's funny is I seriously think that every time I bake I wear pjs/sweats/gross shirts and forget to wear my apron! I always look like crap, lol.

The only think I can think of is our x-mas Polish dinner tradition. This year a bunch of us got together a few days before xmas eve and made tons and tons of different pierogies together :) It was fun, and now i know how to make them!

See Sherm Blog said...

I love you right now. You are hitting the Meno roots right on the head with this one!!! The MCC sale is amazeballs (from what I understand). Surprisingly I've never been... being a Meno from Bakersfield, its rare not to have been. But my entire family goes every year. Hmmmm.... yummy. I get a lot of those foods every holiday on BOTH sides of my family. So its a pretty sweet deal for me. ;-)

Sarah said...

My mouth is watering right now!! That is so great that you took it upon yourself to rekindle that tradition.

.jimaie.marie. said...

I can't believe I haven't been to the MCC sale after all of these years of you going, sort of ridic! I should make a point of going fo sho next time! I remember when you made this bread and you were so damn cute how proud you were :D GOOD JOB MAMA!
I think I want to eat some NOW, make some more? You're adorable while baking you know, you're the best little baker I know!

Aurore said...

This is so great, I want this for breakfast RIGHT NOW!

Mark said...

I use the recipe from "Off the Mountain Lake Range". Tastes like Grandma's. Love it! However, I don't know how she made her tops stay on the bottoms w/o leaving the obvious indentation I often see from sticking a finger through the top into the bottom. I wish I could go back in time and watch her! (BTW,our family is from Fresno County too.)