Fragrant, golden zwieback comes from Russian Mennonite kitchens

Every Saturday, for as long as I can remember, my mother baked zwieback. Eating these fragrant, golden buns began that afternoon when they were fresh from the oven.

After the kitchen floor had been scrubbed and waxed, Mom spread the table with a clean cloth and set out a plate of warm zwieback with homemade jelly.

Zwieback was also part of Sunday breakfasts and Sunday afternoon Faspa - another tradition among Mennonite families who once lived in south Russia.

For this meal we had zwieback buns and jelly, cold cuts and cheese, and a fruit compote. On special occasions there might be a cake. Dinner guests and afternoon visitors were all invited to stay for Faspa.

The Low German word, Faspa, derives from the High German Vesper, one meaning of which is afternoon tea.Zwieback, in German, means double bake, which refers to the leftover buns that are often returned to the oven and slowly toasted until they are dry rusks.

Zwieback buns are similar to bread rolls, but are richer in butter or shortening, a bit saltier, and not quite so firm as bread dough.

Unique in shape, they are formed by placing one bun atop another. One ball of dough, slightly flattened, forms the bottom. A second piece, a little smaller, is pinched off and pressed into the bottom one so it won't topple off while baking.

The art of perfectly centered tops comes with experience and practice.

Grandmother baked zwieback in a grassburner oven in the outdoor summer kitchen of her Kansas farm. It was the task of her older boys to fill the oven with straw and tend it until the bricks were white with heat.

Her long black pans, four feet long and eight inches wide, were filled many times with dozens of zwieback buns for a large family.

My uncles still insist no other oven, no matter how modern or convenient, can produce such wonderful-tasting zwieback or tall loaves of crusty white bread.

Earlier, zwieback was part of the traditional menu served at Mennonite wedding receptions. The day before the ceremony, women gathered in one home, each bringing her share of flour, milk, butter, and yeast. Together they mixed, kneaded, and baked zwieback - sometimes for 200 to 400 wedding guests.

''Wedding zwieback'' would be slightly smaller or daintier than zwieback for less festive occasions.

Mennonite women in Russia found zwieback especially practical for traveling. Combined with ham, they make a simple, tasty picnic fare.

When properly toasted, these buns will not spoil, so they were packed in food baskets for long journeys or ocean travel.

Families migrating from the Ukraine to the United States in 1874 baked an ample supply of zwieback for shipboard meals.

These same Mennonites, many of whom were farmers, brought with them Turkey red wheat, a hard winter variety central to their economy in Rkssia.

Turkey red madean important contribution to wheat production in Kansas and to US agriculture in general. Goessel, Kan., is proud of its Wheat Palace, featuring the story of Turkey red.

Part of the ethnic cuisine of the Russian Mennonites came with them from their origin in Holland. Historian Cornelius Krahn believes zwieback may be the only item among our varied traditional foods dating back to the Reformation or the time of Menno Simons.In Friesland area of the Netherlands is a street named Tweebackstraat (Tvaybahk-straht), or Zwieback Street. Zwieback, indeed, is a unique creation and contribution of Russian Mennonite culture and kitchens.

My mother's recipe, as do most of the older zwieback recipes, uses a combination of half lard and half butter or margarine, giving the buns a richer texture and flavor. Zwieback 2 cups milk 1/2 cup margarine, butter, or lard 2 teaspoons salt1/4 cup lukewarm water 1 package active dry yeast 2 tablespoons sugar 5 3/4 to 6 cups flour

In a saucepan over medium heat, combine milk and margarine and heat until very hot. Cool to lukewarm. Sprinkle yeast over warm water and sugar to dissolve.

In mixer bowl, combine yeast and milk mixture and salt. Gradually add 3 cups sifted flour and beat with electric mixer 5 minutes. Gradually add another 2 3/4 to 3 cups flour.

Turn out onto lightly floured board and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Place in greased bowl, turning to grease top of dough. Cover with plastic wrap and set in warm place until doubled in bulk, about 75 to 80 minutes. Punch down. Let rise again until doubled in bulk, about 30 to 40 minutes. Punch down.

Turn out onto lightly floured board and knead out air bubbles.

To form zwieback buns, pinch off a piece of dough the size of a grapefruit. Hold with your hand and with your fingers and thumb around the dough, squeeze and pinch off a piece of dough about the size of a golf ball.

Place on greased baking sheet and flatten slightly. Squeeze a second ball, slightly smaller, up through your fist and pinch off. Press top ball of dough into bottom one with your thumb, making a ''dimple'' so it won't slide off while baking.

Continue placing zwieback buns about 2 inches apart. Cover and let rise until doubled in size.

Bake at 400 degrees F. for 15 to 20 minutes, or until nicely browned. If necessary, reduce heat to 375 degrees F. last 5 minutes.

Cool on racks or in a large terry-cloth towel, which helps to keep buns soft. Serve with butter and apricot or berry jam. Makes 2 1/2 dozen. Zwieback variations: Sugar Zwieback

Form a single bun of zwieback dough. Dip top in cream or milk and then into a sugar and cinnamon mixture. Repeat with remaining dough. Let rise and bake at 400 degrees F. 12 to 15 minutes. These are best eaten the day of baking. Coffee Cake

Work raisins into 1/4 of the dough. Spread in a greased 9-inch pan with deep sides. Make indentations in dough with finger and insert small pieces of margarine or butter.

Brush generously with cream and sprinkle with 1/3 cup sugar and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon.

Alternate topping: Sprinkle with 2/3 cup brown sugar and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. Drizzle with cream or canned milk. Bake at 375 degrees F. for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F. for another 5 or 10 minutes, or until done. Cream Kuchen

Spread 1/2 dough evenly into greased pan, approximately 9 by 14 inches. Press an edge of dough up 1/2-inch around sides of pan. Beat together 1 egg and 3/4 cup heavy cream. Pour over top of dough.

Sprinkle with 1 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Bake at 375 degrees F. for 30 minutes. Toasted Zwieback

Leftover zwieback buns may be broken apart and toasted in the oven at 200 degrees F. until dry and crisp. They are eaten after being dunked in a beverage.

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